"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Well Dressed Lemmings Marching Towards Oblivion
Being the perpetual and totally out of place liberal oddball living in Red-state suburbia I notice things that the other inhabitants take as a normal part of their reality. The best example I can give happened several years ago at pool party my wife and I were invited. The hosts were part of our adoption group and were completely gracious in throwing open the doors to the huge and lavishly decorated home. All told at the height of the party they had about thirty people wandering around inside the house and outside playing by the pool. To be honest, if by some weird shift in reality, including significant changes in my personality, I owned a similar house I would have never allowed so many people who were at best just acquaintances such access to my home.
That being said, I would not be exaggerating in the least when I write that because of so many people I ended up using their master bathroom to change upon arriving and was stunned to realize it had a floor area bigger than my living room and kitchen combined. The garden tub was so big that it rivaled some motel pools I have seen. The shower stall...well, lets just say there were numerous nozzles as well as some sort of bench inside whose design raised more questions than I want to bring up. When you throw in everything else about the rest of the house and the pool it could have comfortably housed more people than were at the party to begin with. The shocker in all this was that the family who lived there only numbered five people. While I kept my mouth shut, the entire time I was at the party I desperately wanted to ask why in the hell did such a small family need such a gigantic house.
Yes, I know the stock answer many will instinctively recite. That the owners were highly successful people who deserve to reap the rewards of all their educational preparation and hard work. Far from betraying my growing socialistic tendencies I still agree, mostly, with that assumption. Anyone who works hard both in school and later at their jobs has a basic human right to reap the rewards that comes their way. The problem comes with the question that at what point does reaping justifiable rewards cross the line and become gross excesses in a world where many people struggle just to keep rain off their heads while finding enough to eat for one day. If that is too abstract I'll phrase it this way, just how big a damn home, or homes, does a person need?
This question is especially relevant to the few multimillionaire and billionaire elites who control the vast majority of wealth on the planet. How many yachts, estates, cars, and property do they need to own before being satisfied? This still does not let middle class types like myself off the hook. While I live in a “moderately”sized home of two-thousand square feet I have been to countries where that would be considered a plush mansion.
For those in the developing world attaining the American middle class lifestyle became the ultimate goal with the embrace of free market capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. I'll hazard a guess and say that if the average American had any thought about those living in poverty outside the United States he or she would applaud any attempt to bring the Walmart-style consumerism to that country.
The massive problem that the world finds itself is that it cannot sustain an American style of life for every human on the planet. In fact, and it is sad to say many don't want to understand this, but even now we are destroying the global environment along exhausting current resources just to keep those of us living in First World countries supplied with televisions, refrigerators, cell phones, cars, and other items we think we can't live without. Throw in the populations of China and India seeking the joys of an American materialistic lifestyle and you might as well go ahead and nuke the planet because in a truly perverse way it might be kinder.
Unfortunately, here in America any person, like me, who does not believe this rate of materialistic consumption can be sustained is usually branded a commie pinko out to destroy the most wonderful and awesome place ever to exist on this planet. I am sure someone reading this is asking the question that if I have so many problems with America's God given way of life why don't I leave? In all honesty I can answer that I have seriously looked into it but unless you are a rocket scientists or have wads of cash it is extremely difficult. Yes, I would very much like to leave what I see to be a parade of fat and well dressed lemmings marching towards an abyss but as of right now, I cannot.
Now there is always the hope that society in general and those in power will realize that our civilization is ultimately screwed if we stay on our current course but I am not optimistic. My belief is only further reinforced by the growing economic libertarian ideology around me that exclaims “I have mine, and to hell with everyone else.” This ignorant and selfish attitude is suspicious of any idea or person that suggests that there are somethings in life that supersede the individual and the pursuit of unrestrained personal profit.
What I find darkly humorous at times is a local, retired radio personality whose one overriding obsession is his fear that democracies always fall once the people—and I take this generally as a reference to mean minorities on welfare---realize they can vote themselves cash from the state treasury. Yes, I will go as far to agree that it can be a legitimate concern, now I have no idea if he includes all those businesses that receive various forms of corporate welfare meaning they make at least millions in profit but pay no taxes or possibly even get money back from the government.
My counter but equal concern to his is that there are selfish and hugely ignorant people like him that blithely ignore new and unique problems the nation and world now faces. With over seven billion people living on the planet our free market-based industrial civilization cannot be sustained. Sure, civilization has headed off past threats to its existence by incorporating new technologies that raised efficiencies but conversely it also raised consumption and resource extraction making the problem even worse. When you throw in literally billions of new people all wanting the unrestrained American Dream we have jumped way past the breaking point. In short I believe the only way our civilization will survive is to adapt to a new reality.
Human shortsightedness is a near absolute, although our species did find the means to adapt to the world's changing conditions at the onset of the last ice age, which meant the beginnings of civilization. So, as we face increasingly drastic and deteriorating conditions there is a chance that we might find it in ourselves to once again adapt.
Don't follow my reasoning? Try reading this:
A new study sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
Noting that warnings of 'collapse' are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that "the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history." Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to "precipitous collapse - often lasting centuries - have been quite common."
The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary 'Human And Nature DYnamical' (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.
It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilizations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilization:
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilizational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."